Conservation objectives at local level: An important step for the management of Natura 2000 sites in Greece

For the first time in our country, conservation targets have been set for species and habitat types of EU interest in Special Conservation Areas (SACs) and Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) of the Natura 2000 network, thus achieving an important milestone for the protection of biodiversity and the management of protected areas. By setting conservation objectives at local level, the management of Natura 2000 sites is substantially strengthened, while at the same time Greece is fulfilling an important obligation to implement EU nature legislation.

This is the concluding step of a complex and technically demanding process, which was carried out in the framework of the LIFE-IP 4 NATURA project under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment and Energy -i.e. the competent Greek authority and coordinating beneficiary of the LIFE-IP project- and with the participation of the Green Fund, NECCA and the University of Patras, project partners, as well as a number of experts.

What are the conservation objectives and how were they set?

According to the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC), site-level conservation objectives are a set of specifically identified objectives to be achieved for species and/or habitat types with a significant presence in a Natura 2000 site, in order to ensure that the site will contribute as much as possible to the general objective of achieving a satisfactory conservation status for species and habitat types of EU interest at the appropriate geographical level (national, biogeographical, European). Conservation objectives (COs) should be based on the ecological requirements of the habitat types and species in a given area, and should also be quantitative, measurable and realistic.

In the framework of the LIFE-IP 4 NATURA project and the methodological approach adopted, specific parameters considered important for the identification of local COs for habitat types and species (e.g. area, structure and functions of a habitat, population and habitat of a species) and their corresponding units of measurement were defined, taking into account the ecological requirements of habitat types and species, threats and risks of degradation, destruction or disturbance. Subsequently, for each parameter, by taking into account the current status of a habitat type or species and data availability, a quantitative (numerical) target value was determined, i.e. the minimum desired value that contributes to maintaining or achieving a satisfactory conservation status at national or biogeographic level for the specific habitat type or species to be protected. Similarly, a special objective was defined as either ‘maintaining’ or ‘achieving’ the target value, depending on whether the target value has already been achieved and needs to be maintained or needs to be achieved in the future.

In accordance with the Commission’s guidance, all cases where gaps in scientific knowledge making it impossible to determine the target value and/or the specificity of the target were identified and labeled as ‘insufficient data’. It was also noted that habitat types and species whose presence in a site is not significant according to the Standard Data Form (i.e. all species reported to have negligible population size and density compared to populations within the national territory and habitat types reported to have negligible representativeness) are excluded from the obligation to define local COs.

The COs were set in the form of special tables classified by habitat type/species and Natura 2000 site and were annexed in the form of an appendix to the Ministerial Decision No 24776/985 ‘Establishment of conservation objectives for natural habitat types of Annex I and species of Annex II to Directive 92/43/EEC in Special Conservation Areas and Sites of Community Importance of the national ecological network NATURA 2000′ (Official Government Gazette B’ 1807/22.03.2023).

Setting the objectives in the framework of the LIFE-IP 4 NATURA project

In Greece, the first attempt to set COs was made in 2015 as part of the national monitoring project, but did not result in their legal approval. Following discussions between the country and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment (DG Environment), the updating and legal approval of targets was introduced as a separate action in the LIFE-IP 4 NATURA project during its second phase (December 2019) due to the importance and immediate priority that had to be given to this task.

In defining the methodology and subsequently the COs per se, the European Commission’s guidelines, previous proposals of the Nature 2000 Commission, the 4th six-yearly report of Article 17 of the Habitats Directive, current published data and project results etc. were all taken into account. Throughout the implementation of this action there have been communications and meetings of the action’s working group with the European Commission to receive further guidance, as well as communications with other countries for information exchange, extensive literature review and participation in specific EC seminars.

During the initial phase of the action, the Green Fund and the University of Patras, project partners, commissioned expert contractors to prepare COs for the broader taxonomic groups of the protected species and habitats (marine and terrestrial habitat types, fish, mammal, invertebrate, flora, amphibian and terrestrial reptile species, marine mammals/reptiles). After evaluation and further guidance from DG Environment, the methodology was finalised and new work was implemented both by the contractors and by the project action’s working group.

In addition to the contractors’ contribution, more than 60 experts from research institutes, universities and NGOs, with expertise at species/habitat types or geographical area level, as well as the Protected Areas Management Units of NECCA, contributed significantly to this milestone project for the country, in order to strengthen the integrated approach and ensure the most up-to-date knowledge. The contribution of the Nature 2000 Committee was also important, as it reviewed the draft decision, held technical meetings with the working group, provided comments and suggestions and finally gave a positive opinion on the final draft before the publication of the relevant decision in the Official Government Gazette.

Next steps

The development and legal adoption of conservation objectives for Natura 2000 sites will make the definition of conservation measures and the proper assessment of the impacts of plans and projects on SACs/SCIs more effective, while at the same time a major gap in the implementation of the Habitats Directive will be filled to a significant extent.

The same purpose will be served by the forthcoming adoption of conservation objectives for the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) of the Birds Directive (2009/147/EC), in particular for Annex I bird species and migratory species of regularly migrating birds, which have a significant presence in SPAs. This is the second part of the same action of the LIFE-IP 4 NATURA project, which is implemented by the Hellenic Ornithological Society and is expected to be finalized in the next period, to be followed by the issuance of the corresponding OGG by the Ministry of Environment. Finally, it has to be noted that, despite the important step taken in the framework of the LIFE-IP 4 NATURA project, additional efforts are needed in order to fully overcome the knowledge gaps that do not allow for the setting of COs for all habitat types and species of EU interest both at national level and at the level of SACs/SCIs and SPAs. These gaps are expected to be filled through new scientific programmes and projects such as the national monitoring project which is currently implemented.